Fears of repeat flooding disaster in Moz

Monday, January 24, 2011

Johannesburg - Heavy rains and localised flooding across southern Africa are raising fears of a repeat of the devastating floods of 2000, when thousands of people were plucked from rooftops by helicopter, several hundred died and Mozambique's agricultural production was severely impacted.

"All countries in contiguous southern Africa are expected to receive normal to above-normal rainfall between January and March 2011. Northern Zimbabwe, central Zambia, southern Malawi, central Mozambique and most of Madagascar are expected to receive above-normal rainfall," according to an update by the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Hein Zeelie, an OCHA humanitarian affairs officer based in Johannesburg, said that across the region water levels in rivers were "very high", but at this stage "you cannot compare the current situation to previous flooding in Mozambique."

In the past decade, "a lot had changed" in southern Africa, he said. There was greater co-ordination between governments and countries were much more prepared for dealing with flooding.

Part of the precautions was the regular release of water from the Kariba Dam on the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe, and the Cahora Bassa Dam further down the river in Mozambique, to reduce the risks associated with suddenly having to discharge a large volume of water.

The Zambezi River Authority (ZRA) was planning to open two spillway gates of Lake Kariba at the weekend, which could result in rising water levels and in time, possible flooding further downstream.

The Zambian government has issued flood warnings to districts adjacent to the lower Zambezi River, and district disaster managers are alerting communities and preparing for possible flooding. Zambian authorities have informed those in Mozambique of this decision.

The Zambezi River, the continent's fourth largest, rises in Zambia and flows through Angola, along the borders of Namibia and Botswana, and into Zambia again, then along the Zimbabwean border and through Mozambique, where it reaches the Indian Ocean about 150km north of the port city of Beira.

Zeelie said the cyclone season, which begins in January and runs through March, was an added threat.

So far, there have been no cyclones, but these weather systems "usually pick up in February ... and are the main drivers of devastation."

In 2000, torrential rains had been falling across Mozambique since 8 February when Tropical Cyclone Eline made landfall near Beira on 22 February. Five days later, flash floods overwhelmed low-lying farmlands and there was wide-scale flooding in the capital, Maputo.

Lessons from the Mozambique floods in 2000 are relevant, as most of those floods were caused by flash water released through the major regional rivers.

"Historically, the rainfall will increase during the period of end-January to end-February (March in some countries), and this is when major rivers increase their levels and flood low-lying areas, mainly the most productive agricultural areas," the southern Africa office of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) noted in a recent report.

"Lessons from the Mozambique floods in 2000 are relevant, as most of those floods were caused by flash water released through the major regional rivers. Monitoring the situation and strengthening disaster prevention measures in the next six weeks is critical ... to prevent a possible escalation of floods into a regional disaster," the report warned.

"Tens of thousands of people could be displaced or evacuated, and hundreds of thousands more could be affected by damage to crops and shelter."

Farid Abdulkadir, a Disaster Management Co-ordinator at IFRC, said that volunteers had been placed on high alert, and emergency stocks, including shelter, blankets, chlorine tablets and mobile water purification plants, had been placed throughout the region.

"Compared to 2000, the [disaster response] system is much better prepared, but we fear the situation will be quite intense."

Unlike other countries in the region, Abdulkadir said, Mozambique faced "triple disasters occurring at the same time", with water flowing down rivers - such as the Zambezi and Limpopo, which disgorges into the sea near Xai-Xai - as well as rainfall over the country and cyclones from the sea.

In South Africa, weather-related incidents, including floods, lightning strikes and tornadoes, are thought to have killed 100 people between mid-December 2010 and Jan 17, 2011, and approximately 20 000 people had been displaced.

Heavy rains in Lesotho caused crop damage, and four people died in a landslide. In Madagascar, local reports said heavy rainfall in the southern city of Tulear on 6 January resulted in the death of two people.

The Angolan media reported that 11 people died in flash floods in the northern province of Luanda, and said more heavy rain was expected.

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